Pope Francis: The First Global Pontiff

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At a time when Catholics mainly live in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, the humble, compassionate Bergoglio could be the right man for the job.

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Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican on March 13, 2013. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

The white smoke has cleared, and in a first, the leader of roughly one billion Catholics worldwide is a Jesuit and, for the first time in centuries, he hails from outside of Europe. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, is now Pope Francis I.

Bergoglio allegedly garnered the second-most votes after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 (reportedly, he pleaded not to be chosen), so perhaps his selection shouldn't come entirely as a surprise. However, most bets were on Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, and shorter conclaves usually mean front-runners are likelier to be chosen, so the Bergoglio pick is a bit unexpected.

This conclave's group of cardinals is also even older than the one that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, and Italians represent just over 24 percent of the conclave voters, so it's interesting that a more traditional candidate didn't win out.

Bergoglio's selection is entirely logical, though, if you look at the geography: Although only 17 percent of the 115 electors in the conclave are from Latin America, a plurality of the world's one billion Catholics (39 percent) live there. Meanwhile, 52 percent of the cardinals choosing the new pope are from Europe, but only 24 percent of Catholics are European. And the ranks of European Catholics are quickly dwindling, according to data from Pew:

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And over the past century, the world's Catholic population has shifted to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and away from Europe:

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 3.29.43 PM.pngBut Bergoglio seems well-equipped to manage the pressures facing the modern Catholic Church: a dearth of priests, an onslaught of sex-abuse scandals, and a spiritual following that's growing mainly in the global south.

Bergoglio has spent almost his entire adult life in Argentina overseeing churches, and he would likely "encourage the church's 400,000 priests to hit the streets to capture more souls," according to the AP. He seems to eschew pomp and circumstance (no more red Prada shoes?), and he reportedly lived in a small room heated by a stove, took public transportation and cooked his own meals.

Those who hoped for a progressive pope might be disappointed that Bergoglio once said that homosexual adoption discriminates against children, and he's also opposed to contraception and abortion. But while he's not necessarily a reformer, Bergoglio has passionately taken up the Jesuit call to reach out to common people and to treat the poor with compassion. He once called extreme poverty a violation of human rights and said it was the duty of nations to address its causes.

"In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don't baptize the children of single mothers because they weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage," Bergoglio once told his priests. "These are today's hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation."

Perhaps his largest flaw is that he's somewhat frail for a new pope. Bergoglio is a low-key, slow-moving 76-year-old with one lung at a time when the church needs a vibrant leader.

But in a recent profile, the National Catholic Reporter referred to him as "someone who personally straddles the divide between the Jesuits and the ciellini, and more broadly, between liberals and conservatives in the church." And as the son of Italian immigrants, he may succeed in bridging the divide between European and Latin American Catholics. What's more, as a Jesuit priest, he even chose the previously-unused name Francis -- a nod to the Franciscans, who are traditional rivals of the Jesuits.

"The pope's election is something substantially different from a political election," Cardinal Christoph Schönborn told reporters in the Vatican earlier this week. Rather than leading a nation, the winner would be the "spiritual head of a community of believers."

But it seems that, at least in one respect, the choice was political: The Cardinals selected someone with the potential to help believers overcome major divisions.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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